2011: The Year in Gigs

Nate Chinen recalls his 10 favorite jazz performances of the past year

This column comes to you from a bittersweet place. It’s my fond custom, this time of year, to reflect on the many small miracles I’ve witnessed on one bandstand or another over the last 12 months. And I’ll get to that shortly; I am a professional, or so they tell me. But first, a moment of tribute to drummer-composer-bandleader Paul Motian, whose magically intuitive artistry has been a fixture of my jazzgoing life, at least since I moved to New York more than 13 years ago.

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Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Paul Motian
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Geri Allen TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2008
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Steve Coleman
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Geri Allen
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Christian McBride performing with Chick Corea's Freedom Band at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival 2010
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Craig Taborn
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John Hollenbeck
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Paul Motian

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Motian, who died in November at 80, was a genius of sly eloquence and crooked rightness, always in pursuit of the unexpectedly perfect gesture. The stubborn candor he brought to his art was a reliable source of mystery and illumination.

No surprise, then, that Motian is the musician who has graced the Year in Gigs more than any other. He was in the inaugural edition, at the close of 2005, for a Village Vanguard hit by his magnificent trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. (The same group, in the same room, made the cut again four years later.) In the second edition he snuck in as a sideman, for an engagement led by Lovano and pianist Hank Jones. He made the third-year list with his own luminous band. The following year he was listed twice, for two distinct ECM trios: one with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Gary Peacock, and another with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Mark Helias. There would have been more nods, except that at some point I got self-conscious, concerned that my praise was beginning to seem like a motor reflex.

Motian’s relentless refusal to sentimentalize his own history, coupled with his openness to younger musicians, was another important factor for those who admired him. Ghosts of the Sun, a gorgeous album he made (in 2006) with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, was coincidentally released by Sunnyside on the day that he died; weeks earlier McHenry had played an album-release gig at the Village Vanguard, employing a different master drummer, Andrew Cyrille. That was the moment I began to suspect that Motian, who had already canceled a few other dates, was seriously ailing.

But enough. Uncompromising creativity, spontaneous clarity, a pursuit of true cohesive interplay—these were all Motian hallmarks, surely. They apply no less to the 10 superb performances I’ve compiled below. So this one’s for Paul.

Chris Potter Quartet, Village Vanguard, Feb. 8: Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Larry Grenadier, both semiregular Motian collaborators, teamed up here with the smartly elastic drummer Eric Harland and one of this year’s notable young noisemakers, Cuban pianist David Virelles. The music was inspired by nothing less than the Odyssey; their journey justified it.

Wayne Shorter Quartet, Town Hall, Feb. 9: One of the great working bands of this century had an evening plagued with technical difficulties here, but in the end it only sharpened the payoff. Shorter, on both soprano and tenor, exerted his strange telepathy, connecting especially with pianist Danilo Pérez, increasingly this band’s navigator.

Fieldwork, Christ Church Neighborhood House, March 13: Full disclosure: I moderated an onstage discussion as part of this three-night residency, presented by Ars Nova Workshop in Philadelphia. But not on this evening, which had saxophonist Steve Lehman, pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey engaging in elaborate, tensile negotiations on the subjects of texture and groove.

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Le Poisson Rouge, April 25: Partly a showcase for France’s Orchestre National du Jazz, playing a Hollenbeck commission, this concert turned into a celebration of one of our finest, most evocative big bands, with a pair of supremely collected guest singers, Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry.

Shane Endsley and the Music Band, Cornelia Street Café, May 4: Open-minded postbop on a personal scale: That was the mission of trumpeter Shane Endsley here, drawing from Then the Other (Low Electrical), one of the year’s low-key winners. His bandmates, especially pianist Craig Taborn, ran with his ideal of shadowy flow.

Peter Brötzmann and Jason Adasiewicz, Angel Orensanz Center, June 8: Brötzmann, the guest of honor at this year’s Vision Festival, played in three separate ensembles, each breathtaking on its own terms. My favorite was this unexpectedly accommodating duo with Adasiewicz, a vibraphonist of exacting tonal effect. A genuine conversation, it covered the full dynamic spectrum, from expectant hush to meteor-hits-the-building.

Craig Taborn, Rubin Museum of Art, June 17: His solo-piano debut, Avenging Angel (ECM), was one of the year’s top albums, and this recital succinctly showed why. A tour de force both cerebral and visceral, it came across like a free climb on sheer stone, with every instinct heightened, every nerve ending poised to fire.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Newport Jazz Festival, Aug. 6: I’d seen this elliptical band the previous week in New York, and come away with mixed feelings. No such ambivalence here. Coleman, on alto, led his younger charges with his usual cryptic surety, and they rose to the occasion, especially drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

Geri Allen Trio, Village Vanguard, Sept. 6: The bracing, soulful intelligence of Geri Allen’s pianism was in full effect in the first set of a weeklong run, and she had the benefit of a first-rate rhythm team, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. I said it then and I’ll say it again: Let’s get this band on record.

Christian McBride and Inside Straight, Village Vanguard, Nov. 29: McBride, the former bass prodigy, uses this quintet to revisit the style of some of his earliest, swingingest bands. But the engagement sticks in the mind for the playing of another precocious Christian: one Christian Sands, 22, a former protégé of Dr. Billy Taylor. Another good reminder that fresh discovery can still come speeding down jazz’s center lane.

Originally published in January/February 2012

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